History of the U.S. Navy battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) including information about asbestos exposure for workers.
The USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was ordered for the U.S. Navy on August 22, 1912. Her keel was laid down at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on October 27, 1913. She was launched on March 16, 1915 and commissioned on June 12, 1916 under the command of Captain Henry B. Wilson.
As a member of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, the USS Pennsylvania became the flagship of Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander U.S. Atlantic Fleet on October 12, 1916. Arriving at her base at Yorktown on April 6, 1917 after maneuvers in the Caribbean, the battleship stayed local for training, maneuvering, and tactics until her overhaul and Norfolk and New York. On August 11, 1917, USS Pennsylvania received full honors when she manned the rail and was boarded by President Woodrow Wilson.
USS Pennsylvania headed to Brest, France in December 1918. She manned the rail and served as guide for President Wilson’s escort home from the Paris Peace Conference. The battleship returned home on Christmas Day.
The USS Pennsylvania was involved in a number of other ceremonial duties and Fleet maneuvers in the years leading up to World War II. She underwent overhaul and modernization at Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1929, and was again overhauled at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in January 1941.
USS Pennsylvania was dry docked at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. She was one of the first ships in the harbor to open fire on Japanese aircraft. The battleship was not torpedoed during the attack, but she and the surrounding dock areas were strafed. One of her gun mounts was blown off by a bomb that struck the starboard side and exploded inside Casemate Nine. She was also hit by fragments of other ships that had been hit, including a half-ton torpedo tube from the destroyer USS Downes that was blown onto her forecastle. By the end of the attack, 15 men had been killed, including her executive officer, 14 men were missing in action, and 38 were injured.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Pennsylvania headed to San Francisco for repairs. She conducted patrols and training operations, as well as performing ceremonial actions, before joining Vice Admiral William S. Pye’s battleship group to intercept any Japanese attempt to attack the West Coast.
The USS Pennsylvania took part in more tactics and training before further overhaul in early 1943. She sailed for Alaska on April 23 to join in the Aleutian Campaign. She bombarded Attu on May 11 and May 12, warned the second day of a torpedo that was headed her way. Maneuvering at full speed, she safely avoided the torpedo. It took intensive efforts to find and destroy the attacker, but the Japanese submarine I-31 was finally sunk by the destroyed USS Frazier on June 13.
USS Pennsylvania supported the infantry attack on May 14 before heading off to the Puget Sound Navy Yard on May 21. She returned to action on August 7 and became the flagship for Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, Commander Kiska Attack Force, six days later. She supported the troop landings at Kiska on August 15, when it was discovered that the Japanese had already evacuated under the cover of fog before their arrival.
Later that year, the USS Pennsylvania became the flagship of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander Fifth Amphibious Force. As part of the Northern Attack Force, she joined the assault on Makin Atoll on November 20, 1943. Four days later, the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay sank after a torpedo attack; many lives were lost, including that of squadron commander Rear Admiral Henry M. Mullinnix.
On January 31, 1944, USS Pennsylvania joined the bombardment of Kwajalein, supporting the troop landings the following day as well. She bombarded Eniwetok and Parry Island in February. For the next several months, the battleship sailed from Majuro to Efate, to Sydney, and back again to Efate. She conducted bombardment and amphibious assault exercises at Port Purvis in the Florida Islands.
USS Pennsylvania joined the task force en route for the Mariana Islands on June 10, 1944. One of the destroyers in the group reported sound contact; an emergency turn left 90 degrees was ordered. This resulted in a collision with high-speed transport USS Talbot, which sustained minor damage.
The USS Pennsylvania joined the bombardment of Saipan on June 14, and the bombardment of Tinian the following day. She bombarded Guam on June 16 before returning to cover Saipan. After a brief stay at Eniwetok, the battleship returned to the Marianas in July.
During July, the USS Pennsylvania was involved heavily in the Guam campaign. She took part in the pre-invasion bombardment and provided fire support for demolition parties. During her time at Guam, she earned the distinction of firing more ammunition in a single campaign than any other warship in history. She earned the nickname “Old Falling Apart” because she discharged so much metal that it looked like she was falling apart.
USS Pennsylvania bombarded Agat Beach on July 21. She remained to provide fire support until August 3, when she headed off to rehearse the landing assaults on Guadalcanal. She bombarded and provided fire support at Palau, Peleliu, and Angaur Island before heading for emergency repairs at Manus, where she entered the floating dry dock on October 1, 1944.
When her repairs were complete, USS Pennsylvania joined Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Bombardment and Fire Support Group as part of Video Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Central Philippine Attack Force. She participated in the operations on Leyte leading up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The force didn’t lose a single ship in the American victory at the Battle of Surigao Strait. The battleship shot down a number of enemy aircraft during the operations.
The USS Pennsylvania patrolled Leyte Gulf until November 1944. She headed to Lingayen Gulf on January 1, 1945, where the Lingayen Bombardment and Fire Support Group came under heavy fire from enemy aircraft. The escort carrier USS Ommaney Bay was hit by a kamikaze and lost in the fire that resulted from the hit. Many other ships were damaged in the attack.
On January 6, the USS Pennsylvania bombarded Santiago Island. She remained in the area to provide fire support and cover troop landings. The force was attacked by enemy aircraft on January 10, but the battleship was not hit. She destroyed a concentration of enemy tanks before sailing off to patrol the South China Sea.
After her patrol, USS Pennsylvania received temporary repairs at Manus before sailing to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for a complete overhaul. Some of the new guns she received had been salvaged from the wreckage of the USS Oklahoma, which had been sunk in the Pearl Harbor attack.
When USS Pennsylvania returned to action, she bombarded Wake Island on August 1, 1945. She then proceeded to Buckner Bay off the coast of Okinawa, where she was hit well after by a Japanese torpedo on August 12. The torpedo killed 20 men, injured 10, and created a hole 30 feet in diameter in her stern. She began to flood, but repair parties and two salvage tugs helped save her. She was towed to shallower water to continue salvage efforts the following day. The battleship was towed to Apra Harbor in Guam, where she was dry docked to weld a patch over the hole so she could return to the United States under her own power.
The destroyer USS Walke and cruiser USS Atlanta accompanied the USS Pennsylvania back home in October. She lost a shaft and propeller along the way, arriving at Puget Sound Navy Hard on October 24. When her repairs were finished, the battleship steamed to Bikini Atoll for atomic bombs testing as part of Operation Crossroads in July 1946.
USS Pennsylvania was towed to Kwajalein and decommissioned on August 26,, 1946. She remained there for further radiological and structural studies until she was sunk on February 10, 1948. She was removed from the Naval Vessel Register on February 19, 1948. The battleship earned eight battle stars and a Navy Unit Commendation for her service in World War II.
Like virtually every other ship of its time, the USS Pennsylvania was constructed using many asbestos-containing components. Asbestos was known for its fireproofing abilities and its resistance to corrosion, heat, and water. It could be found in boilers, valves, steam pipes, hot water pipes, caulking, gaskets, sealants, engine rooms, turbines, incinerators, sealants, electrical wiring, rope, floor and ceiling tiles, and wall insulation. Anyone who worked in or around the USS Pennsylvania was put at risk of developing serious asbestos-related illnesses like throat cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a dangerous type of cancer that attacks the protective lining surrounding the lungs and other organs.
USS Pennsylvania workers should monitor their health carefully, and consult a doctor if they experience any symptoms associated with mesothelioma. Anyone who worked on or around the USS Pennsylvania, and is diagnosed with mesothelioma, should also consider contacting a lawyer to discuss their legal rights.